Tearing Lady Gaga’s ticket. Seeing a tenor dropped in Tosca. Grooving to Mavis Staples from the rafters. These are the magical moments that happen with live performance. They are also just another Tuesday night for The Saints, the quiet backbone of Chicago theater that’s never stopped working, lockdown be damned.
The Saints is the only organization of its kind nationally, a group of nearly 1,300 volunteer ushers who are the first to greet you at nearly any performance worth attending across the city. These unofficial concierges for Chicago performing arts describe their role simply—to welcome, to be of service, and to support Chicago arts organizations with their time and financial resources.
The group’s origin story is well told, dating back to the 80s and the end of young David Mamet and William H. Macy’s heady run at St. Nicholas Theatre. After the theater closed, a dozen volunteer ushers took their talents elsewhere and word spread, as box offices across the city seized the opportunity for valuable outsourcing. Key shows and venues, like The Phantom of the Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, have boosted membership by hundreds over time, and in recent years this all-volunteer squad has reached more than 2,300 members (COVID-19 caused a downturn last year).
For many longtime arts lovers, what they call “ush-ing” has become a uniquely fulfilling second act in retirement. For Stephanie Stephens, it staved off fears of a “couch potato” lifestyle and any financial stress around her favorite activities. For Trudy Meltzer, it was a natural extension of her work in Chicago Public Schools exposing children and their families to theater. For Hugh Spencer, a Saints lifer, ushering has always been the throughline, from his high school days at Ravinia to meeting his wife at the Goodman to decades at the Lyric Opera.
Theater gives us direction in a multitude of ways, and many came into sharp relief when the pandemic closed the curtains. It asks questions, creates common ground across cultures, and keeps us in the present moment in a way screens have nearly destroyed. “It’s a place to go that’s home, that’s familiar, that enriches me. That’s what The Saints do. That’s what going to the theater does,” says 80-year-old Tom Lembo, a 15-year Saint.
The seven Saints I spoke with have felt the loss of theater in their lives acutely, calling it a “very big hole.” Some had ushered almost daily, relying on the organization as a source of structure, social life (from barbecues to extracurricular trips to outdoor Shakespeare at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin), and stimulation—a way to consistently engage with their passion for the arts. Hope may have been hard to come by, but they never stopped showing up for the Chicago arts scene. In March 2020, the group’s $25,000 donation kicked off the Chicago Theatre Workers Relief Fund, which went straight to unemployed local theater artists.
The Saints have a long history of philanthropy. The group has awarded $1,150,000 in arts grants since the program’s inception in 1992 and will have matched more than $100,000 of Saints donations to participating companies by January. The arts grants aren’t large, capping off at $5,000, but they’ve moved the needle for storefront theaters in meaningful, personal ways. A grantee once brought their torn stage curtains to the grants presentation, a touching reminder of how much theater gives us with so little. In support of this mission and with no free theater to gain, 1,244 of the Saints renewed their membership during the pandemic.
The Saints’ fall best bets
(Anonymity was requested so they’re not “cheating on other theaters.”)
The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Vol. 5—SEX!
Chicago’s favorite drag seniors from Hell in a Handbag move to the Leather Archives & Museum; 9/16-10/23
Songs for Nobodies
Local cabaret standout Bethany Thomas performs American standards at Northlight Theatre in Skokie; 9/23-10/31
Songs for a New World
Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle introduces vulnerable characters at their most pivotal moments at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre; 9/24-10/27
Roots & Wings
Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, the “Alvin Ailey of Chicago,” explores the spectrum of modern, ballet, and African dance at the Auditorium Theatre; 10/23
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play
Theater Wit revives Anne Washburn’s “post-apocalyptic tale of survival, passion and the enduring power of Bart Simpson”; open run
After this past year’s pivot to well-attended virtual programming with speakers like Tribune theater critic Chris Jones and Black Ensemble Theater founder and CEO Jackie Taylor, The Saints are squarely focused on welcoming audience members back to live performances. COVID compliance officer Anna Cantlin has led the group’s evolving ushering safety policy, which outlines a minimum acceptable level of safety required to maintain agreements with participating theaters. “We’re vaxxed, masked, and ready to go,” says Saints president Ruth Johnston. “Our members know that’s part of their uniform if they’re going out into those spaces.”
With a more digital post-COVID theater experience likely in our future, featuring virtual tickets and programs, the role of The Saints comes into question. But in other ways, it doesn’t. Theater is meant to be a welcoming, safe space, and The Saints have always been the ones to do that welcoming, whether they’re scanning tickets, passing out water, or issuing mask reminders.
Prioritizing inclusivity permeates all facets of the organization, as evidenced by its progressive and proactive stance on social issues. The Saints issued a public statement in support of Black Lives Matter, created an initiative to educate members on pronoun use, and approach their collaboration with Chicago theaters with an eye on equity. Grants are carefully distributed among theater partners to ensure diverse voices are represented. The group’s virtual BOBB (before-on-behind-beyond) Stage Series was created to highlight ethnically and culturally diverse presenters in dance, music, and theater.
As for the group’s membership composition? Age diversity is a priority for the primarily senior population. Interest in a discounted “under 40” membership is growing, with 44 memberships sold to-date. Thirty-one-year-old board member Caitlin Brecht’s grassroots marketing includes recruiting young coworkers at her office and plugging The Saints while performing at spoken word events around the city. Neighborly Saints checked in during COVID as Brecht navigated a move, breakup, and new job. She’s proud of the group’s work “lifting diverse voices and helping people get safely into seats,” and two books of saved programs from ushering gigs speak for themselves in terms of membership’s value proposition.
The Saints can’t wait to see you as live performing arts find their footing in this renewed, but unfortunately still-challenging (thanks, Delta) world of in-person reconnection. Whether you see them in full “penguin” attire at the CSO or business casual at your neighborhood’s small black box—stop, smile, and thank theater’s essential workers for welcoming you back home.